The front door was locked, but between posters for Spider-Girl, Marvel Zombies and Scott Pilgrim, Lars could see a body slumped face down on the counter.
He tapped on Spider- Girl’s pert breast, then knocked harder on Scott Pilgrim’s head and a Hulk zombie.
“Hey!” he shouted. “This is an emergency.”
The body moved, raised its arm, and flipped Lars the finger.
“I’m serious. Wiki, is that you? It’s…” he hesitated, “it’s The Immortal.”
There was a buzzing and the door clicked open.
Two screens simultaneously flashed Atari Shock data.
The player-feed scrolled fresh information.
“What time is it?” moaned a moan.
“Ten-ish. How long have you been playing?”
“Thirty-seven hours-ish,” mumbled the body, barely managing to raise its head from the desktop.
Blood-shot eyes, skin as pale as an emergency milk chocolate bar; this was Zack, Wiki’s right-hand man and co-owner of The Amped Up Comic Book Store,
“Where Creatures Come To Life.”
Lars tried to smile at the dehydrated mess of a man before him.
There was an over-long pause and the faint sound of snoring.
Zack blinked and slapped himself on the cheeks to try and wake himself.
“That never works,” said Lars. “You need electrolytes and eggs, and a single shot of caffeine with a can of Hype, then keep eating Haribo until you feel full.”
“What time is it?”
“I just told you.”
Zack’s eyes fluttered closed.
“Hey!” Lars shouted again. “I need to speak to the Wickster.”
Lars pushed behind the counter and the Atari Shock forums caught his eye.
He saw the words, The Immortal, followed by a variety of imaginative insults on multiple threads.
“Not you as well, Zack?”
“This guy formed a super clan. We all get a piece of the immortal pie. Seen how many people are grouping? Hundreds of thousands. Quintillions even.”
Lars pushed the door with a fuck you and climbed the stairs.
Zack began tapping at the keyboard and was soon lost in the clutches of the game.
The flat above the Amped Up was an archive; boxes of comics and graphic novels were piled high next to framed superhero posters and bags of colourful t-shirts.
Wiki was locked into a laptop, a duvet over his head like a Jedi shawl, a piece of toast hanging from his lips.
“Pissed a few hundred thousand people off then, have we?” he crunched without looking up from the screen.
Talking to Wiki was more like making a phone call. It rarely needed the punctuation of eye contact. Whenever it did, though, you knew that he was hooked.
“That’s not why I’m here.”
“Start again. I can trade you a new buff, been working on her for a while. She’s loaded and fucked.”
Lars considered the offer while he moved a stack of t-shirts and slumped into an armchair. “The Immortal is not for trade.”
“You’ll never be able to use that avatar again if the super clan stay after you, and you know it. You should man up and make the sacrifice.”
“Never,” said Lars dramatically as he pulled out a blonde action figure that was jabbing into his back.
“Careful. That’s a nineteen seventy-four, Dukes of Hazard, Bo Duke original. Very rare. Worth a fortune.”
Lars looked at the shit-eating grin of the plastic figurine. “A tenner on eBay?”
“Excluding postage and packaging.”
He dropped it into a cardboard box, along with several other Dukes of Hazard, Bo Duke originals, that were equally as rare.
“How long have you been buffing up?” Wiki asked, nonchalantly.
Lars couldn’t quite place a date.
Had it been months since he’d first created the almighty avatar, maybe years already?
“Long enough to know that The Immortal is too precious to let go.”
“He’s an Atari Shock god, right?” smirked Wiki, trying to look like he didn’t care enough to be having the conversation.
This was another well-rehearsed act and Lars knew it.
Whenever Wiki really wanted something, he either spoke with complete apathy or overstated sarcasm.
“You seen the forums?”
“Never read your own press,” replied Lars, considering reading the forums.
“They’re all after you.”
For some reason the words made him shiver. He touched his forehead. He had a cold sweat. Perhaps he was coming down with something.
“I hadn’t noticed,” he replied. He wasn’t as good at playing the apathy or sarcasm game.
Wiki crunched on dry toast.
Lars didn’t feel hungry. He couldn’t remember the last time that he’d eaten. The nauseous spiralling sensation was hanging in the pit of his stomach.
“If you haven’t come to trade, then what do you want?”
“At the time I got hacked…”
“Got hacked,” Lars repeated. “I saw something weird.”
The image of the fox was still perfectly clear, vivid and haunting; lean body and piercing eyes. “I saw a fox with nine tails.” He stated the fact like he’d accidentally summoned the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Wiki resisted the temptation to look up and instead took another crunch of toast to prove his absolute disinterest. He allowed the crumbs to dissolve in his mouth as he considered his answer.
“You saw a kitsune.”
“I saw a what?”
“Dude, Usagi Yojimbo, issue one hundred and thirty-two.”
Lars was blank.
“Ok. Magic The Gathering? Jade Empire? Naruto?”
Wiki became more frantic.
“Shippo from Inu Yasha? Sakura from Hyper Police? Fuck, you’ve never played Perfect Cherry Blossom? Ran Yakumo is the kitsune Shikigami of Yukari, the extra stage boss and the phantasm stage mid-boss.”
“What about Ninetales? You know Ninetales, right? The Pokémon?”
“Well, what’s a Pokémon doing in my bins?”
“Seek information and Wiki shall provide, but Wiki cannot be expected to explain that information,” he said with a touch of the Jedi master.
“Helpful, mate. Seriously, I appreciate it,” replied Lars, sarcastically, and this time really meaning it.
Wiki stared at the laptop and began typing.
His eyes took on the glaze of someone who had no intention of saying anything for a very long time.
“Dude?” asked Lars, with a pained expression. “Help me out here?”
Wiki paused, hit a few keys, minimised and maximised some windows, and put Atari Shock into player-safe mode.
“You saw a kitsune. Plain and simple. It’s probably your spirit animal.
Maybe someone close to you is about to die.
Maybe you’re about to die?
Maybe it just wanted to say hello, who knows?
But well done for having the awareness to allow yourself to be contacted by what is essentially a being from another cosmic dimension.
It made first contact, and it will expect you to answer.
It probably wants you to go on a spirit quest or something. Did it ask you anything?”
Lars shrugged. “It said – “you.”
Wiki stroked the bristles on his chin. “What, like… you look nice. I love you. You coming out to play?”
The more Lars thought about it, the more he realised that the haunting “you” had been echoing throughout the early morning for weeks.
The strange sensation hit him that maybe the animal was trying to get his attention. “Do you know a player called Hotei?”
Wiki had never looked him in the eyes like he did at that moment. “Hotei is a bot. We have no more business to discuss.” He lowered his head and tried to feign disinterest.
“Hotei saved me at the exact moment when the fox was crying out, and then, he disappeared. It’s like the game rebooted. I was sent a bunch of crazy IGMs. Look at this?”
Lars pulled up the game history on his phone.
Wiki took a fleeting and overly disinterested glance. “Remember your true self. Beware the shadow animals. This is bullshit, man. Return to Mt. Hōrai. Tengu is watching? What the fuck?”
“Tengu was a member of Lady Shiva’s Circle of Six. It could kick Richard Dragon’s ass, but didn’t stand a chance against Batman.”
“OK, so one minute I’m top of the league, next I hear a fox say “you”, and now I’ve got one of Batman’s evil villains after me?”
“Exciting times, huh?”
“Someone got into my account and locked me out. Someone sent me a bunch of weird IGMs. It’s connected. I know it.”
“You’re saying that you had nothing to do with the poorly played decisions of The Immortal, and that a fictional animal made you screw up your game?”
“You were the one who said it was a kitsune!”
Wiki pulled the duvet higher over his head and retreated.
“You know something, don’t you?”
“OK, just because it’s you. So, I’ve tried tracing influencer I.P. recently and I came across a massive cluster of avatars in Japan, like, out of this world huge; thousands in one location. Then, just when I think I’ve cracked the GPS signal, they ghost, disappear, like they never existed. Perhaps Hotei is part of this ghost clan, somehow?”
“Hotei’s a ghost?”
“How the fuck should I know.”
“This really isn’t helping.”
“Just ignore it and be grateful for the assist. You’ve got more important things to worry about like an angry mob after your avatar and a Pokémon in your bins.
That’ll be twenty hot rocks if you please, oh, immortal one,” demanded Wiki from under his duvet with a sense of winner’s pride.
Lars was more confused than ever. “You don’t deserve it. You’ve explained absolutely nothing.”
“Then perhaps you haven’t been listening.”
Wiki’s face was hidden from view but Lars could tell by the sound of his voice that he was grinning wider than the Bo Duke doll.
He waited for more but there was only the sound of empty keys tapping in the cluttered room.
He pulled out his phone and pinged the hot rocks into Wiki’s Atari Shock account, and then jumped down the stairs realising that he was very late for work.
He always came away from these meetings poorer and more confused.
Today was no exception.
“It’s a never-ending battle against evil, dude,” Wiki muttered to himself, as he disappeared under the duvet like a creature retracting into its protective shell. “Tengu is watching.”